Pushing to the limits: The dynamics of cognitive control during exhausting exercise


This study aimed at investigating concurrent changes in cognitive control and cerebral oxygenation (Cox) during steady intense exercise to volitional exhaustion. Fifteen participants were monitored using prefrontal near-infrared spectroscopy and electromyography of the thumb muscles during the completion of an Eriksen flanker task completed either at rest (control condition) or while cycling at a strenuous intensity until exhaustion (exercise condition). Two time windows were matched between the conditions to distinguish a potential exercise-induced evolutive cognitive effect: an initial period and a terminal period. In the initial period, Cox remained unaltered and, contrary to theoretical predictions, exercise did not induce any deficit in selective response inhibition. Rather, the drop-off of the delta curve as reaction time lengthened suggested enhanced efficiency of cognitive processes in the first part of the exercise bout. Shortly before exhaustion, Cox values were severely reduced - though not characteristic of a hypofrontality state - while no sign of deficit in selective response inhibition was observed. Despite this, individual’s susceptibility to making fast impulsive errors increased and less efficient online correction of incorrect activation was observed near exhaustion. A negative correlation between Cox values and error rate was observed and is discussed in terms of cerebral resources redistribution.